Comment

Iran: Pursuit of Morality Serves Political Aims

New drive to uphold Islamic dress code serves multiple purposes – keeping clerics happy, and testing public appetite for renewed confrontation.
  • After police seized this car, they put a sign on it saying the occupants had been detained as "Offenders of Virtue". (Photo: Abolfazl Salmanzadeh)

The Iranian government is adding fuel to the fire by harassing young people for the way they dress and behave in public. It can only compound the mood of public resentment.

After last year’s disputed presidential election and the months of political turbulence and numerous arrests that followed, Iranian society entered a period of relative calm in the early months of 2010. There were no demonstrations, no clashes with police, tension in the universities was much reduced compared with a few months earlier, and there was less vocal criticism of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his administration.

Thus, over recent months the government’s desire to quell protests and restore calm has come true.

Yet now it is the regime itself that seems to be actively provoking trouble, by reviving street patrols to check on “bad hejab” – incorrect observance of Islamic dress prescriptions – and on the rules governing relations between the sexes, for example that unmarried and unrelated men and women should not go out together.

State-organised demonstrations are taking place in cities across the country to complain about decadent behaviour; the police are stopping and questioning boys and girls in the street; there is talk of segregating university classes; the Friday prayer leader in Tehran has said students should receive fail marks in their exams if they are prone to “bad hejab”. To cap it all, the Iranian parliament or Majlis has taken the first steps toward establishing a state morality watchdog called the Council for Encouraging Virtue and Prohibiting Vice.

The imposition of such restrictions may not seem out of the ordinary for a government that has always been given to impulsive action. Yet in the current political context, the new morality drive is still hard to understand.

There are several contributory factors, which are not mutually exclusive.

First, the Ahmadinejad administration seems to be trying to curry favour with the clergy and more broadly, with the more devout sections of society.

Ironically, a government which claims to adhere to Muslim precepts and the principles of the Islamic Revolution more than any of its predecessors has found itself at loggerheads with the clergy since coming to power when Ahmadinejad was first elected president in 2005.

Under pressure from the clerics, the administration was forced to retract a decision to allow women into sports stadiums, and last year Ahmadinejad again faced harsh criticism from them when he decided to appoint three women as ministers for the first time.

Conservative clerics have been further infuriated by the president’s suggestion that Iran is being guided by the Hidden Imam, the 12th leader of Shia Islam who disappeared a thousand years ago and is expected to reappear one day.

It is disagreements of this kind that prompted the majority of leading clerics in Qom to vote for Ahmadinejad’s rival Mir Hossein Mousavi in last year’s presidential election. Many of them went on to voice unhappiness about the post-election crackdown on protestors, and this dissatisfaction was reflected in the failure of many ayatollahs to send the re-elected president the customary message of congratulations, and in the excuses they found not to grant him an audience.

Even a year after the ballot, the government has failed to repair its relationship with prominent Shia scholars.

When the clerics withdraw their backing, it translates into a loss of support among the more devout sections of Iranian society, who place unwavering trust in the clergy. Significantly, it is this class which accounts for the bulk of Ahmadinejad’s supporters.

Winning back the clerics’ support will be a tough task. But the campaign to stop women dressing un-Islamically and to prevent boys and girls mixing freely in public may be a step towards rebuilding sympathy among the religious classes. Mindful of the religious sensitivities of the faithful, Shia clerics have consistently demanded that Iranian governments past and present do more to enforce Islamic dress codes.

As Mohammad Taghi Rahbar, who heads the clerical faction in the Majlis, has put it, “The president… has done many great things, but the clergy have a major complaint – why hejab is ignored in society, and why so many boys and girls in the universities, theatres, streets and parks do not maintain religious boundaries between them.”

Justified in this manner, the government campaign against immoral behaviour also serves a secondary purpose – pressuring women and young people who played a major role in last year’s protests.

The presence of police on the streets is an open display of the regime’s iron fist. This show of strength used to be effective – before last year’s election it would never even have crossed people’s minds to stage street protests.

The campaign against “bad hejab” gives the police and other paramilitary forces a valid reason to patrol the streets and wage psychological war on citizens, deterring would-be protestors from coming out to demonstrate.

It is also possible that by adopting a deliberately aggressive stance towards certain social groups, the government wants to provoke them, in a controlled manner. This may be hard to believe given the difficulty the authorities had in restoring control in the wake of the protests. But there is something to this argument.

Despite the semblance of relative calm over recent months, not even the government believes it will last. There is common agreement that the political crisis is far from over, and the root causes of popular anger remain unaddressed.

From that perspective, the superficial atmosphere of tranquility is a headache for the government. When the protests were taking place, the authorities could at least see how anger was being channeled, and could try to manage it. Now, in contrast, no one can say how and where the silent rage might erupt. It is a conundrum the government would like to solve.

If the post-vote opposition movement can be likened to an iceberg, the crackdown on public protests means it is entirely submerged with nothing visible above water. It is undeniably still there, and the risks it poses are undeniable, but less and less is known about it.

The unprecedented enforcement of restrictions on young people and women can therefore be seen as a controlled test to provoke opposition supporters into revealing themselves. That way, the authorities hope to locate the invisible iceberg and try to measure just how big it is.

Shahryar Sadr is a journalist and political analyst based in Tehran. 


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